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Keeping children with disabilities in school by protecting their right to services

Illiteracy and disability-related behaviors are the biggest predictors for school suspensions.

Student reading problems often become behavior problems, which lead to suspensions and court referrals.

A study by The Civil Rights Project found that students with disabilities are suspended twice as often as students without disabilities, despite federal laws that require supports for students whose behavioral problems are a manifestation of their disability. The disparity is even greater for students of color with disabilities.1

Ending up in the juvenile justice system is a tragic outcome for children with disabilities and often is a result of the school’s failure to identify the student’s disabilities and provide the legally required supports and services. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in 2007 that “up to 85 percent of children in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37 percent had been receiving any kind of services in their school.”2

That is why attorneys with Carolina Legal Assistance (now Disability Rights NC) created the Special Education Juvenile Justice Project (SEJJP) in 2002. The project continues today with funding from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) grant program administered by the NC State Bar. SEJJP is dedicated to keeping students with disabilities in school by preventing school suspensions, court referrals, illiteracy, and drop-outs among at-risk youth.

Students with disabilities are entitled by law to special education services even if they are suspended, even if they are in the juvenile justice system. Our clients include students like these:

A seventh grader, reading on a second-grade level, who was referred to the juvenile court system for school conduct violations

A 19-year-old who was illegally suspended from high school, denied any educational services for three months, and had criminal charges filed by the school for using profanity on the school bus. Although he was reading well below grade level, his reading services had been discontinued when he began high school  

A 15-year-old who was placed on homebound services for 3 ½ months and referred to the juvenile justice system by the school.  She received no regular education or special education services from the school system during her homebound placement  

With limited resources, we cannot begin to advocate for each individual student who is being failed by the system.

But by fighting for a number of students, we are forcing changes in that system and protecting others who are vulnerable to falling through the cracks and into the school-to-prison pipeline.

For example, as a result of our advocacy, the seventh grader received comprehensive evaluations and reading assessments, which revealed a specific learning disability that impacted his ability to read. The school agreed to provide compensatory education, which included specialized reading instruction during the summer with a trained specialist. The school also agreed to contract with a behavior specialist to train the school staff on how to develop an effective Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) to help the student gain self-control.

The student returned to school, and the case served as a catalyst for the school system to train special education and regular education teachers in data collection for effective behavior plans, rather than relying on suspension and juvenile court referrals to address challenging behaviors. In another case, we filed an administrative complaint on behalf of two clients which resulted in systemic improvements in teacher training for students with reading problems.

We also work with coalitions to reduce disciplinary exclusion practices, including shortening school days, filing juvenile petitions, and perpetuating violations of Child Find — the legal requirement that children who may have a disability be evaluated to determine if they qualify for special education services. We participate in Department of Public Instruction Exceptional Children’s Division stakeholder meetings to give students with disabilities a voice in statewide policymaking. In an effort to leverage limited resources for the benefit of many, we provide trainings for parents, juvenile court counselors, and graduate students studying to be teachers, principals, and EC directors.

The Special Education Juvenile Justice Project is not a silver bullet guaranteeing success for every at-risk student with disabilities, but it makes a crucial difference in helping students with disabilities get the education they need and deserve.

Editor’s Note: At EdNC, we believe in the importance of saying thank you. After my first year of law school, I had the honor of clerking at Carolina Legal Assistance and working with Deborah Greenblatt, Christine Trottier, and Roger Manus. They, in large part, taught me the value of hard work, public service, and turning to the courts for policy change. Many thanks to Chris for her tireless dedication to our students and our state throughout her remarkable career. 


Show 2 footnotes

  1. Losen, Daniel J. and Gillespie, Jonathan, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” The Civil Rights Project, August 2012, p. 13.
Christine Trottier

Christine Trottier recently retired from Disability Rights NC after 37 years of service as a public interest lawyer.